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Jim McLean: Kansas Republicans' Beef About Kelly's Political Weakness About To Be Tested

Crysta Henthorne
Kansas News Service

Ty Masterson finally said it this week. He gave voice to what many Republicans had been thinking since November. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s election was a fluke.

“Her presence in the governor’s office is a tragic collision of timing,” Masterson, a state senator from Andover, told Associated Press Correspondent John Hanna.

As a result, Masterson said Kelly lacks a mandate from voters.

Masterson is one of the more outspoken GOP conservatives in the Legislature. He chairs the Kansas Truth Caucus, a coalition of legislators dedicated to championing “core conservative principles of limited government, individual liberty, free enterprise and traditional values.”

He’s not alone in his thinking. Senate President Susan Wagle, arguably the Legislature’s top Republican, is right there with him.

“Well, (Kelly) won her election with 48 percent of the vote,” Wagle told me in an interview. “So, no, she didn’t have a majority of Kansans supporting her.”

Anthony Hensley, the Senate’s top Democrat, said Republican leaders are misreading the election results.

“They are out of touch … with the people of Kansas,” Hensley said.

The discussion of Kelly’s legitimacy is an ominous sign for the majority of Kansas voters who said they wanted to see Republicans and Democrats work together to solve problems that festered under former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

An extensive survey of Kansas voters done by Fox News and the Associated Press-NORC Research Center at the University of Chicago revealed that 77 percent of Kansas voters thought that Brownback’s tax policies were bad for the state.

A majority of voters surveyed — 52 percent — viewed Kelly favorably, meaning she was the second choice for many who cast ballots for independent Greg Orman. Contrast that to the 52 percent of voters who viewed Republican nominee Kris Kobach unfavorably.

Kelly labeled Kobach “Brownback on steroids” and it seems clear that resonated with voters.

Republicans — and, to be fair, many other political observers — believe the party would have retained the governor’s office if Jeff Colyer had been its nominee. Remember, Colyer ran for the nomination as the sitting governor, having stepped up to fill the position when Brownback left for a mid-level ambassador’s job in President Trump’s administration.

It’s a reasonable assumption, but one that doesn’t invalidate the fact that Kansas voters were also seeking a break from the Brownback past. Colyer, after all, promised to "change the tone" when he took the reins from Brownback. 

Yes, conservatives won back some of the legislative seats they lost to moderate Republicans in 2016. But Kelly’s winning margins in the state’s urban areas — Johnson and Sedgwick counties in particular — told us much more about the overall dynamics of Kansas politics than the outcome of those local races.

The Republican assumption that Kelly is a weak governor will be tested by their approaching confrontation with her on the tax relief. Spurred by the Kansas Chamber, the Senate this week passed a bill that would spare some individuals and a handful of big corporations from a state tax increase triggered by recent changes in federal tax rules.

The bill got 26 votes, a comfortable margin in the 40-member Senate. But not enough to override an expected veto should it clear the House and reach her desk.

Kelly doesn’t like the bill. She’s said it’s $190 million price tag would hinder efforts to tackle the problems that linger from the Brownback era. Problems that include an underfunded and overwhelmed foster care system. Dangerously understaffed prisons. Deteriorating highways. And a seemingly never-ending legal battle over school funding.

Kelly believes voters hired her to address those and other problems. Her anticipated veto of the tax-relief bill will put that belief — and Republican assumptions about what voters intended — to the test. 

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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